The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "'90's New Math Offers Valid Approach" by The Detroit News, 1/2/98.

Original Title:
The Second Math War
by Barry McGhan

You remember the First Math War. It happened about 30 years ago. The new math side lost. Now, a Second Math War seems to be underway. The battle is over what is called "the new new math," (aka, "fuzzy math," or "whole math"). This last August there were pro and con editorials in the New York Times, and a special report in Time Magazine. Now, we see Richard Whitmire's report on the conflict ("'New' math adds up to big controversy") right here in The Detroit News (11/23/97).

As a former mathematics supervisor, I can tell you that the new '90's mathematics programs I know are valid and valuable. Much of the recent criticism is based on an uninformed, antiquated understanding of mathematics. Mostly, it's a tempest in a teapot.

For example, the new curricula are criticized for placing too much emphasis on the use of calculators, and not enough on basic skills. None of the '90's programs I am familiar with do that. Calculator use is taught as appropriate, and these days, it's appropriate almost everywhere. It's a waste of time to grind out paper and pencil answers to problems that are better done by machine. Also, students must have a command of basic skills in order to use a calculator well, because one should always use estimation to check a calculator result.

For example, I know that 12 times 337 is going to be more than 12 times 300 (3600) and less than 12 times 400 (4800). Further, it's going to be a little less than halfway between those two (4200). That's because 337 is a little less than halfway between 300 and 400. So, when my calculator says the answer is 4044, that sounds about right. I can easily check the answer by doing it twice, or by multiplying in reverse order (337 times 12). Ultimately, I know I have the right answer because I have "number sense" and I can estimate well, both things that the '90's math programs seek to teach. Anyone who thinks it is worthwhile to teach multiplying 12 by 337 by hand is out of touch with the times.

Still, some teachers may be teaching with calculators in another way. If so, they don't know what the new math programs require. It wouldn't be the first time you've heard about a good plan that was improperly executed would it? This is one of the major problems of education reform. Developers of a worthy new curriculum have little control over the way it's used once it is published. Nor do they have much say over the publication of an inadequate clone of their work.

Another problem is that the majority of teachers have had precious little training in the use of new methods and materials. Research published this year by Michigan State University investigators shows that even the teachers who are most familiar with new programs are still struggling to shift over from the old ways they were taught, to the new ways they are being asked to teach. In reality, there's not that much new '90's math being taught anywhere right now. It will be years before changes take hold.

It's always amazing to me that people feel businesses can spend millions of dollars retraining their workforce, and take years to implement new programs, while they expect schools to undertake comparable changes with thousands of dollars, by the end of next semester. How long has GM been reorganizing now? Almost 20 years, and they're still not done. And all they do is slap inanimate objects together.

Representatives of business and industry have a direct responsibility for the current turmoil in school mathematics. It was their complaints about traditional instruction back in the mid '80's that led to the curriculum reforms we are now starting to see. They are the folks who wanted

  • standards for all children;

  • real world problems that require team work and the use of technology;
  • problems that connect across different specialties.

It's time for business and industry to step up and support the new math programs.

Do I sound a little frustrated? You bet I am. We have some of the best mathematics education people in the country right here in Michigan. The leader of the group that developed the new national standards for high school works at Western Michigan University. The national middle school standards' leader teaches at Michigan State University. The elementary school standards' leader was trained at the University of Michigan.

These three educators and their colleagues have been sweating bullets during the last few years developing solid classroom materials that meet the standards they developed. It will be a shame if these efforts wind up being trashed for an antiquated traditional curriculum that we already know doesn't work.

If it happens, we'll be headed back to the 19th Century instead of ahead to the 21st. Count me out.


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